Dave Nichols: With Zimmerman out, Nats should deal for infielder

The major league trade deadline is Thursday. The Nationals have won eight of their last 12 games and 15 of the last 23. But with Ryan Zimmerman’s hamstring injury reportedly keeping him out of the lineup for six to eight weeks, most folks around baseball think the Nats will be active in the trade market for an infielder - either second base or third - to help the team with its pursuit of a division title.

In this space a week ago, I came to the conclusion that the Nats were as healthy as they’ve been all season long and they were playing well, leading me to conclude that they didn’t need to trade long-term assets for short-term rentals this season. Then Zimmerman got injured and changed the whole story. The team is 3-3 since he was injured, and the batting order certainly has a gaping hole that his bat once filled. The lineup just doesn’t produce as well when he’s not in it.

The Nats are in an interesting position. Both Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann are slated to be free agents after next season. The Nats, true contenders, are in no position to deal either of them this season as we’ve seen other teams do with impending free agents they know they won’t be able to afford to retain. Maybe they deal one of them in the offseason? Possible, but not likely. That makes a two-season window.

Stephen Strasburg, the beleaguered ace of the staff, is already arbitration-eligible, and becomes a free agent after the 2017 season. Bryce Harper, who despite his obvious talent hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to put up eye-popping numbers this season, will be arbitration-eligible after 2015, at the same time Desmond and Zimmermann can walk.

Where am I going with this?

It’s a long-winded way of saying that general manager Mike Rizzo needs to fill that hole in the batting order that Zimmerman’s injury has created. The Nats should be able to see the window this group of players has to compete for a division title and seize the opportunity.

Sure, the players assembled now should be able to finish the season as one of the top five teams in the National League and be part of the playoff tournament. With this pitching staff, there’s enough talent there to be in the conversation, even if Harper continues to struggle in another injury-shortened season. But add another bat, then hopefully get Zimmerman back healthy down the stretch, and now you’re talking about a legitimate World Series contender.

Adding a bat - say Arizona’s Aaron Hill, Colorado’s Josh Rutledge or if you want to get crazy, Philly’s Chase Utley - would give the Nats some insurance against Zimmerman’s injury for the next few weeks, then all sorts of flexibility during the stretch run and hopefully a long playoff run. Yes, those types of players could cost a significant prospect or two.

But that’s what first-division, big-market contenders do.

A week ago, I looked at the Nats’ situation and said, “Play out the hand.” With Zimmerman’s injury, I’ve changed my mind. It’s time for the Nats, and Rizzo, to go all in.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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